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- The Air Ship Boys - 20/34 -
Propeller, rudder and aeroplane being at work, Ned again appeared.
"Go below," he ordered sharply, "and bear a hand when needed."
Bob did so. Alan was on the pilot platform with his hands on the wheel controlling the rudder wires. His eyes were fixed straight ahead.
"See that lever," he said, jerking his head to the left.
Bob quickly discovered the aeroplane guider control and sprang to it.
"Wait for orders," added Alan.
THE FIRST FLIGHT
The balloon was still sliding downwards and swiftly forward. For several minutes the three boys stood in silence. Only the steady whirr of the engine and a musical humming of vibrating wires could be heard. Bob wondered if they were headed earthward again, for he could see the approaching foothills widening out beneath. At last, when they could not have been over five hundred feet from the ground, came the quick order:
"Right the planes."
Bob was almost caught napping, for he was busy looking through the window. But his hands responded instantly, and he almost choked with chagrin to find that he had started to throw the lever the wrong way. But his recovery of himself was instant and with a desperate pull he forced the guiding planes back horizontally. The glide downward stopped and the Cibola shot forward with renewed speed.
On the bridge Ned held a fluttering chart before him.
"How is she heading?" he called to Pilot Alan at the wheel. With a glance at the compass before him Alan promptly responded:
"Make it north by east."
A quick slight movement and a strain told that the alteration had been made.
"North by east it is," sang out Alan.
"Keep her there," was the echoing response.
Bob was thrilled. Every word was to him a joy. Everything had happened so quickly that he hardly knew what it all meant, but he was happy. Even the sudden discipline pleased him and he was glad to be a part of it. The knowledge that a younger boy was giving him orders did not bother him. He had skill in his own line, but he saw and realized that in the Cibola Ned Napier was in charge and meant business.
For some time then no word was heard. The Cibola, speeding, swiftly onward, had crossed the low foothills and was pulling herself through the almost breezeless air like a modern liner, five hundred feet above the ground. She was holding her course beautifully. Then Ned appeared and tested the gas exhaust and oil feed of the engine.
"Were you ever in a balloon before?" he said when he had finished, turning sharply towards Bob.
"Never," answered Bob, glad enough for a chance to say something.
"Have you any matches?" somewhat sternly asked the commander of the Cibola.
"Sure," replied Bob reaching in his pocket and finding one.
"Any more? All of them."
Surprised, Bob searched his clothes and discovered a few more which he obediently handed over to his superior officer. Noting the look of surprise in the reporter's face Ned laughed.
"The first rule in a balloon is 'No fire.' But beginners forget, sometimes; we can't take this chance with you."
"Take anything I have got," answered Bob with his old smile, which had now been in eclipse for some time, "and if I can speak at last I want to say that you boys are white, clean white, through and through. Didn't you need that ballast?"
"We may need it badly," said Ned, laughing. "If it should become necessary I suppose you won't mind if we throw you overboard."
"No," retorted Bob, "not if it is a little at, a time. But you're bricks--both of you--if I thank you I'll cry." The tears were again in his eyes.
"Well, it wasn't the thing to do, I suppose," said Ned turning away, "but you looked so hungry to go, and I knew what it meant. So I thought we'd just give you a little ride up to the camp."
"Yes, of course," answered Bob slowly as his hopes fell. "Put me out wherever you like," he added.
"You can go up now and have a look around," said Ned at last, "both of you. I'll take the wheel."
The relieved boys scrambled onto the bridge deck. Night was coming on and the mountains to the west were already black. Evening shadows were lengthening on the sloping plains beneath and a gentle, rising breeze flapped the flag and pennant and swayed the bag above them. Beneath, the Chusco wound its half dry course and off to the east a blue haze, melting into the unending sand, told of a treeless and waterless waste.
"And there," exclaimed Alan at last, pointing off to the northwest where snow-capped, ragged peaks rose out of a black jumble of mountains, "are the Tunit Chas and the land of our dreams. To-morrow--"
"One moment," interrupted Bob quickly. "I think you are forgetting. That is your secret and not mine."
Alan flushed. "I forgot," he said with a stammer, "and I thank you."
"I can't afford to make you sorry you brought me," added Bob, "and you are not going to be."
There was a little jar. The propeller slackened a trifle, and Alan explained that Ned had headed the Cibola another point into the freshening breeze.
"Steward," said Ned from below, "it's seven o'clock and I'm hungry. Besides, it's getting pretty dark down here."
Alan and Bob looked at each other and laughed.
"That certainly means me," exclaimed Bob, and both boys clambered below. With Alan's help Bob made his first examination of the store room.
The meal was rather haphazard, as the boys, carried away by the excitement of their new flight, had neglected to eat when it was light. But water and hardtack were easily accessible, and Alan, taking the first two cans at hand, found happily that they contained sardines and veal loaf.
"We'll eat on deck," suggested Ned, as he set the wheel and had another look at the engine, which had not missed a revolution.
The night that greeted them was magnificent. The moon was not yet up, but the stars were scintillating in the inky sky and the deep silence of the clouds and desert was about them. Bob gazed as if spellbound. The charm of the night appealed to him as it did to Ned and Alan; but with it his brain formed phrases--"cloudland by night," "a dash to the stars." The reporter in him was thinking "copy."
"Hey, there, wake up!" cried practical Ned.
Bob flew to his task; with a turn he had the veal loaf can open and had dumped its contents in the wooden plate held by Alan.
In another moment he would have thrown the empty can overboard but the watchful Ned, ready for another lesson in aeronautics, caught his hand.
"Don't you like the route we are taking?" laughed Ned.
Bob's face showed he did not understand.
"The loss of the weight of that can might send us sparing upward a thousand feet," explained Ned dryly, "so don't cast over ballast until you get orders."
Bob shook his head. "Well doesn't that beat all," he exclaimed.
As night fell and the air grew heavier, the barometer showed that the Cibola had a tendency to rise. The aeroplanes were readjusted and then for an hour the craft sped on untouched. At eight o'clock Ned said:
"We haven't traveled over eighteen miles in an hour and we've been afloat four hours. If we are still over the Chusco and Elmer and Buck are at the appointed place we may be within ten or twelve miles of them."
"They are going to burn three small camp fires set in a triangle, you remember," remarked Bob.
"Therefore," suggested. Ned, "all keep a sharp lookout."
At half past eight Ned showed some concern. No lights had been
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